Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Help Our Students Become Better Readers - Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 14, 2012 7 min read
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(You can see Part One of this series here)

Even though I’m receiving plenty of questions from readers (but could always use more!), I periodically take on a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.” This post is a the second in a four-part series responding to one of them:

“What is the best advice you would give to teachers trying to help their students become better readers?”

Professors Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington contributed their responses in last week’s post. Today, I’m lucky to have contributions from two other educators, thinkers, and writers who have also had a major impact on my teaching (and, I’m sure, on the work of many other teachers), Nancie Atwell and Cris Tovani.

More guests will be sharing their ideas in this series’ future posts, I’ll be having a special one including many insightful comments being left by readers, and I’ll share a few of my own suggestions.

Response From Nancie Atwell

Nancie Atwell teaches seventh and eighth grade writing, reading, and history at the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine. She is the author of The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers (Scholastic) and In the Middle (Heinemann):

My advice is to do what it takes to make reading easy, inviting, enjoyable, and meaningful. This means access to books that tell great stories, freedom of choice, time to read, and encouragement and information along the way. We need to dismantle the institutional hurdles--to shelve class sets of novels, sticky notes, and core reading programs--and acknowledge that it’s engaged practice that makes readers. No child who didn’t read a lot ever became a strong reader.

Building a classroom library of compelling, young-adult titles is a place to begin. I started out borrowing collections from my school library, then signing out titles to individuals. Today my students browse in a classroom library that offers a minimum of twenty titles per reader. The books they nominate as sure-fire invitations to non-readers appear on our website, c-t-l.org, on the Kids Recommend page. Of course, teachers need to get--and keep--our own feet wet as readers of young adult literature, by no means a burden, given the intriguing, richly-themed titles available these days for adolescent readers.

Kids need time to read the books they choose, in school and at home. Malcolm Gladwell theorizes in Outliers (2008) that it takes ten thousand hours of practice for an expert to acquire his or her expertise. When we dedicate regular class time to students living vicariously in stories, and when we assign pleasure reading as baseline, priority, nightly homework, students begin to acquire the kind of experience that leads to increased fluency, understanding, vocabulary, and stamina. My students read an average of fifty-three books representing a dozen genres last year, and they are wizard readers--and critics.

An effective program of independent reading isn’t a study hall where we all Drop Everything And Read. The teacher’s main roles are to talk with individual kids--quiet conversations about what they’re reading, how they’re reading it, what they’re understanding and noticing, whether they’re happy, and what they might read next--and with the whole class about books, authors, genres, and literary elements. In minilessons, my students discuss character development, theme, setting, plot structure, description, reflection, dialogue, form, voice, diction, tone, style, leads, and conclusions. We also conduct booktalks: hundreds of sales pitches about titles we loved and think others will love, too. The classroom is alive with the language of literary criticism, spoken by students who see themselves as insiders, as members of what Frank Smith calls the literacy club (1988), because they read good writing and have learned to identify what makes it work.

A few years back, I taught an eighth grader, new to our school, who told me he had never read a book. I was incredulous--how could this be? He’d listened to class discussions, skimmed SparksNotes, cheated off friends when it came time for tests, and maintained the average he needed to play sports. When I booktalked titles with him in mind the first week of school, written by such gifts to boy readers as Carl Deuker, Todd Strasser, and Sherman Alexie, he practically ripped them out of my hands, he was so eager to find out what happens next. This is what great stories do for kids--for all of us. They tap humans’ built-in interest in the human condition, in all its varieties.

This boy read thirty-six books by June. He developed and identified favorites--titles, authors, genres--and easily named his criteria for choosing and judging books. His reading level soared. Most importantly, he discovered why anyone would want to read in the first place: for the pleasure to be found in getting lost in a story.


Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown.

Smith, F. (1988). Joining the Literacy Club: Further Essays into Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Response From Cris Tovani

Cris Tovani is an English/Reading teacher and the author of So...What do They Really Know? and several other books.

All Readers Deserve to Get Better.

People who read well, read often. Sometimes I get so focused on struggling readers that I forget about the kids who can read well, but choose not to. Students who don’t show growth over time aren’t always the strugglers. Even good readers improve when they are exposed to the following teaching behaviors.

Carve out reading time during class in all content areas.

Good readers make time to read every day. People who don’t read well often wait for others to tell them what the reading is about. If we have kids who won’t read on their own, we have to make time in class for them to practice. As students read, the teacher is then freed up to confer with individuals or work with small groups. In essence, make differentiation manageable.

There are no short cuts here. No one gets better at something by watching someone else do it. Ironically, the kids who need to read the most get the fewest school opportunities to do it. In the haste to cover content, kids are robbed of reading chances. Simply reading the required text aloud or telling students what the content is about won’t grow readers.

Model how to construct meaning.

All readers need mentors to learn from, and to some degree, every teacher can be a mentor when it comes to comprehension instruction. Take a minute to consider what you do to comprehend. Do you reread the entire text or only selected parts based on a specific purpose? Do you hold your thinking by filling out worksheets or by annotating text? Do you demonstrate your comprehension by turning in a graphic organizer or do you actually use it to complete a task? Do your questions drive what you read or do you read to answer someone else’s questions?

Showing kids the authentic ways you interact with text will not only encourage them to read more, it will also give them power and independence to think in your class.

Provide some choice.

Choice drives engagement. People who like to read have some choice in the matter. Struggling readers are often told what and how to read. Providing choice in the classroom doesn’t mean that everyone has to be in a different book all the time. Sometimes choice comes in the form of letting kids pick from two different articles. Maybe students get to choose how they group themselves when it’s time to share. Perhaps choice comes in the way students show their understanding.

All students deserve to grow as readers. Creating conditions where kids have time to read and opportunities to learn how experts construct meaning is a good start. In addition, we honor the learner’s individuality by providing some options for choice. Who knows? These three suggestions might be the spark that reignites students’ desire to read that will ultimately lead to better comprehension.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be compiling reader suggestions in a future post in this series.

Thanks to Nancie and Cris for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I won’t be posting a new “Question Of The Week” until this series is completed in four weeks, but feel free to send a question in if you have one in mind! And don’t forget to contribute your own advice on teaching reading...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.